32 Dealing with Inactivity

Inactive adults or those who don’t yet do 150 minutes of physical activity a week should work gradually toward this goal. The initial amount of activity should be at a light or moderate intensity, for short periods of time, with the sessions spread throughout the week. The good news is that “some is better than none.”

People gain some health benefits even when they do as little as 60 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity.

To reduce risk of injury, it is important to increase the amount of physical activity gradually over a period of weeks to months. For example, an inactive person could start with a walking program consisting of 5 minutes of slow walking several times each day, 5 to 6 days a week. The length of time could then gradually be increased to 10 minutes per session, 3 times a day, and the walking speed could be increased slowly.

Muscle-strengthening activities should also be gradually increased over time. Initially, these activities can be done just 1 day a week starting at a light or moderate level of effort. Over time, the number of days a week can be increased to 2, and then possibly to more than 2. Each week, the level of effort (intensity) can be increased slightly until it becomes moderate to high.

Flexibility Activities

Flexibility is an important part of physical fitness. Some types of physical activity, such as dancing, require more flexibility than others. Stretching exercises are effective in increasing flexibility, and thereby can allow people to more easily do activities that require greater flexibility. For this reason, flexibility activities are an appropriate part of a physical activity program, even though they have no known health benefits and it is unclear whether they reduce risk of injury. Time spent doing flexibility activities by themselves does not count toward meeting the aerobic or muscle-strengthening guidelines (Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans).

Warm-up and Cool-down

Warm-up and cool-down activities are an acceptable part of a person’s physical activity plan. Commonly, the warm-up and cool-down involve doing an activity at a slower speed or lower intensity. A warm-up before moderate- or vigorous-intensity aerobic activity allows a gradual increase in heart rate and breathing at the start of the episode of activity. A cool-down after activity allows a gradual decrease at the end of the episode. Time spent doing warm-up and cool-down may count toward meeting the aerobic activity Guidelines if the activity is at least moderate intensity (for example, walking briskly as a warm-up before jogging). A warm-up for muscle-strengthening activity commonly involves doing exercises with lighter weight.

Getting and Staying Active: Real-Life Examples

Adults can meet the Physical Activity Guidelines in all sorts of ways and with many types of physical activity. The choices of types and amounts of physical activity depend on personal health and fitness goals.

Here are three examples.

Jean: An Inactive Middle-Aged Woman

  • Her goals: Jean sets a goal of doing 1 hour a day of moderate-intensity aerobic activity on 5 days a week (a total of 300 minutes a week). Weighing 220 pounds, Jean is obese and wants to lose about 1 pound of weight each week.
  • Starting out: Jean cuts back on her caloric intake and starts walking 5 minutes in the morning and 5 minutes in the evening most days of the week. She walks at a 2.5 mile-an-hour pace. Although physical activity tables show this to be light-intensity activity, for her level of fitness and fatness, it is appropriate moderate–intensity activity.
  • Making good progress: Two months later, Jean is comfortably walking 30 to 40 minutes at moderate intensity to and from her bus stop every day. She then adds variety to her activity by alternating among walking, riding a stationary cycle, and low-impact aerobics. She also begins muscle-strengthening activities, using elastic bands twice each week.
  • Reaching her goal: Eventually, Jean works up to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, including her brisk walks to and from the bus stop. She has lost 40 pounds of weight in 1 year, with most of the weight loss occurring the previous 6 months when she mastered her diet and was able to do greater amounts of physical activity.

Douglas: An Active Middle-Aged Man

  • His goal and current activity pattern: Douglas was a soccer player in his youth. His goal is to get back into shape by becoming a regular recreational runner. In addition to his job operating heavy equipment, he walks 30 to 40 minutes a day on 5 days each week. He also lifts weights 2 days a week.
  • Starting out: Douglas starts a walk/jog program with a co-worker and plans to gradually replace walking with jogging and then running. The first week he goes out on 5 days, walking for 25 minutes and jogging for 5 minutes.
  • Making good progress: Each week, Douglas gradually increases the time spent jogging (vigorous-intensity activity) and reduces the time spent walking (moderate–intensity activity). He also continues his weight-lifting program.
  • Reaching his goal: Eventually, Douglas is running 30 to 45 minutes 4 days a week and lifting weights 2 days a week. He goes for a 1-hour bicycle ride on most weekends.


  • Her goals and current activity pattern: Anita plays league basketball (vigorous-intensity activity) 4 days each week for 90 minutes each day. She wants to reduce her risk of injury from doing too much of one kind of activity (this is called an overuse injury).
  • Starting out: Anita starts out by cutting back her basketball playing to 3 days each week. She begins to bicycle to and from campus (30 minutes each way) instead of driving her car. She also joins a yoga class that meets twice each week.
  • Reaching her goal: Eventually, Anita is bicycling 3 days each week to and from campus in addition to playing basketball. Her yoga class helps her to build and maintain strength and flexibility.

Achieving Target Levels of Physical Activity: Possibilities Are Endless

These examples show how it’s possible to meet the Guidelines by doing moderate-intensity or vigorous-intensity activity or a combination of both. Physical activity at this level provides substantial health benefits.

  • Ways to get the equivalent of 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity a week plus muscle-strengthening activities:
  • Thirty minutes of brisk walking (moderate intensity) on 5 days, exercising with resistance bands (muscle strengthening) on 2 days;
  • Thirty minutes of brisk walking on 2 days, 60 minutes (1 hour) of social dancing (moderate intensity) on 1 evening, 30 minutes of mowing the lawn (moderate intensity) on 1 afternoon, heavy gardening (muscle strengthening) on 2 days;
  • Thirty minutes of an aerobic dance class on 1 morning (vigorous intensity), 30 minutes of running on 1 day (vigorous intensity), 30 minutes of brisk walking on 1 day (moderate intensity), calisthenics (such as sit-ups, push-ups) on 3 days (muscle strengthening);
  • Thirty minutes of biking to and from work on 3 days (moderate intensity), playing softball for 60 minutes on 1 day (moderate intensity), using weight machines on 2 days (muscle-strengthening on 2 days); and
  • Forty-five minutes of doubles tennis on 2 days (moderate intensity), lifting weights after work on 1 day (muscle strengthening), hiking vigorously for 30 minutes and rock climbing (muscle strengthening) on 1 day.

Personalize the Benefits of Regular Physical Activity

Adults need to identify benefits of personal value to them. For many people, the health benefits, which are the focus of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, are compelling enough. For others, different reasons are key motivators to be active. For example, physical activity:

  • Provides opportunities to enjoy recreational activities, often in a social setting;
  • Improves personal appearance;
  • Provides a chance to help a spouse lose weight;
  • Improves the quality of sleep;
  • Reduces feelings of low energy; and
  • Gives older adults a greater opportunity to live independently in the community.

Set Personal Goals for Physical Activity

The Guidelines alone don’t provide enough information for individuals to decide the types and amounts of activity that are appropriate for them. Individuals should set goals for activity that allow them to achieve benefits they value. Simple goals are fine. For example, a brisk walk in the neighborhood with friends for 45 minutes 3 days a week and walking to lunch twice a week may be just the right approach for someone who wants to increase both physical activity and social opportunities.

In setting goals, people can consider doing a variety of activities and try both indoor and outdoor activities. In particular, public parks and recreation areas in the United States offer opportunities to experience nature and be physically active at the same time.

The best physical activity is the one that is enjoyable enough to do regularly.

Learning Activity

Try this interactive online tool if you want help scheduling your own physical activity calendar. More tips about scheduling your physical activity are available at Adult Guidelines.

Show Sources


Source: The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Office of Disease Prevention & Health Promotion, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/


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